In Their Own Words

Anni Liu on “Memory in a Foreign Language”

Memory in a Foreign Language

     weekday afternoons I walk from school to the English
                    class in the foreign     language university

                                 the air is the color of amber                  or it is only
     this way in memory                   which has stained it
                    like a film        remastered

                    here I learn a language           is the way someone you love
     looks when speaking it              and English is my mother

moving her face in ways she does not at home
     long pursed O’s             wide smile       that’s almost a grimace

     the lesson underway:                 sounds with the letter L
I mimic the sounds     my voice swallowed         by the class

     I stretch               my mouth and feel the shape of what
                    I don’t yet understand           chanting                 lack

     luck      lock                     lack      luck
                                                                     lock      and what happens next

     I don’t remember yet

Reprinted from Border Vista (Persea Books, 2022). All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

On “Memory in a Foreign Language”

I’m fascinated by the relationship between language and memory, and my poems are sometimes ways for me to puzzle through the relationship between the two. I was brought to the US when I was almost nine, and I knew about as many words of English. But, being a kid, and the kid of an English teacher especially, I quickly became fluent. After a few years, I’d all but forgotten Chinese. Along with my first language, I severed my past self and her life from my new one willingly, eagerly, like an extraneous and embarrassing appendage I alone possessed.

It is apparently common for childhood learners of a second language to pass through a silent period. From this time between languages, I have almost no memories, least of all about myself. Inside my brain, a black hole opened, into which entire years silently vanished. In this poem, English is the future, freeing and overwhelming. It carries meaning even before the speaker can understand it. It speaks of hardship even as it functions as social, cultural capital. At the end of the poem, we see the hole created by the disowning of language and the reticence of memory.

What is it now, to recall experiences from that other language and life, to distill them and access them in English? Writing of childhood, I feel as though I’m creating memories, writing the past one scene or line at a time. More than remastering, it feels like an act of ghostly ventriloquism, or like archeological interpretations of compromised artifacts. Whatever it is, it is the only way, until I am fluent again in Chinese, to remember my life.

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